'Pop' the Question - Part 2: How Did Italian Pop Music Flourish in the 1960s?

Mon, 05/26/2014 - 08:56

John Bensalhia continues his look at Italian pop music with a walk back to the golden years of the 1960s.

The term “Golden Age” is an oft-quoted one, whether people are debating the best era for film, TV or music. When it comes to music, the 1960s seems to be the decade that a good portion of people plump for as a Golden Age. If the 1950s took its first steps into public consciousness, then the 1960s made big, confident strides.

Pop music was redefining itself in the 1960s all over the world. Influential bands such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones were making their debuts, bringing a whole new level of popularity, acclaim and record sales. Even these three examples proved that they could change musical styles like a chameleon. The Beatles would start off with simple rock 'n' roll roots, before experimenting with psychedelia, world music, vaudeville and practically every musical style under the sun, as witnessed in later albums such as Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or the double whammy of The White Album. The Rolling Stones would also dabble with psychedelia (Their Satanic Majesties Request album) and more sophisticated takes on rock and blues (Beggars Banquet album). And of course, The Beach Boys would progress from the simple sun, sand and surf through to the complex arrangements of classic albums like Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile.

In Italy, established musical acts were also about to embark on a wider musical journey. Take Mina, for example, who was about to experience a golden decade of success. Having seen her popularity bloom across the world in countries such as Germany, Spain and France, the hits kept on coming in her own country, including 1964's E' l'uomo per me (the best-seller of that year) and 1966's Se telefonando (also the theme for TV programme, Aria condizionata). But after the initial rock 'n' roll beginnings, Mina was now branching out and widening the musical palette. Her songs now began to cover jazz, scat (heard in songs like Brava and Spirale Waltz), Brazilian music (La Banda) and soul. Her voice was ideally suited for this last type of music which was to become a hugely popular genre, thanks to the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Mina would enjoy hits with covers of Dionne Warwick (La voce del Silenzio) and The Delfonics (a version of Break Your Promise, which was known as Niente di Niente). 

The musical roots of the 1950s were still going strong. The Sanremo Music Festival was still showcasing musical talent. Caterina Caselli, for example, performed at Sanremo in 1966 with a song called Nessuno mi può giudicare, which went on to become a million seller. Caselli went on to enjoy further success with songs including a cover version of David McWilliams' Days Of Pearly Spencer (Il Volto Della Vita). Another notable Sanremo contender was Bobby Solo, who would win the festival in 1965 (with Se piangi, se ridi) and 1969 (Zingara with This Mortal Coil). His earlier entry in 1964 had been a controversial one when it was alleged that he was singing with playback to the song Una lacrima sul viso. However, this did not damage sales, since it went on to sell a million in Italy and three million global.

Rita Pavone was another popular singer in the 1960s, initially winning a contest seeking out new and upcoming talent (Festival degli Sconosciuti). 1963 was the year in which it all began for Pavone, as she scored big-selling hits with La partita di pallone and Cuore, plus a well-received eponymous titled album. Like Mina, Pavone gained international stardom, in countries such as Spain, America and Britain, where she reached the Top 40 with Heart and Only You. Another familiar trope of 1960s music would be the soundtrack album. If Elvis enjoyed Blue Hawaii and had Fun In Acapulco, and Cliff went on a Summer Holiday, other artists found that light 'n' frothy films did no harm to publicity or record sales. Rita Pavone also made a number of films in the 1960s, including "Rita, la figlia americana" and "Little Rita nel west". 

On the subject of films, a very influential Italian composer made an impression in the charts. Ennio Morricone has enjoyed a long and highly acclaimed career with a string of memorable compositions to his name. In the 1960s, he wrote hits such as Se Telefonando and the theme from "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly", which provided Hugo Montenegro with a chart smash. The soundtrack to "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" spent more than a year on the charts, and remains widely acclaimed for its musical depth and originality.

The 1960s saw even more singers and groups than ever before. Male singers such as Adriano Celentano began successful careers in the 1960s. With 40 albums under his wing and a run of hits, Celentano is said to be the best selling Italian male singer. His hits include the million seller La coppia più bella del mondo and the infectious Azzurro, a song that belies its strident militaristic tempo with lyrics depicting lovelorn loneliness in a summer city.

One notable emerging genre in the 1960s was that of the singer songwriter. Acts like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon (along with Art Garfunkel) were producing music of a more sophisticated and introspective nature. The 1960s were widening the vocabulary of the song lyric, by introducing social, political and topical concerns. Songs were becoming more personal, as opposed to the still popular bubblegum love song pop. 

Italy saw a new wave of this type of singer songwriter in the mid to late 1960s. Francesco Guccini even translated Simon And Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson into Italian! In addition to this, Guccini became big news from his debut in 1967, producing songs such as Dio è morto. His legacy lives on today as new generations enjoy his work, from the home to the classroom, where it's said that today's kids are learning about his songs as poetry.

Other singer songwriters included Gino Paoli, who scored with 1963's Sapore di Sale and the late Luigi Tenco who was found dead at the age of 28 in 1967. Tenco's songs such as Una Brava Ragazza had awoken the censors, but had still proven very popular with the record buying public.

Fabrizio De André's songs also looked at the darker side of life, depicting tales of outlaws, prostitutes and rebels. De André also took a moral stance with his songs, with a slant towards pacifism and libertarian causes. His songs include Via del Campo, La città vecchia and La ballata dell'eroe. It's also worth noting that as the long-playing album went from strength to strength in the 1960s, artists such as De André released high-performing LPs. Indeed, his Tutti morimmo a stento is regarded as one of the first and most important concept albums in Italy – an echo of other 1960s concept albums such as Days Of Future Passed by The Moody Blues and Ogden's Nut Gone Flake by The Small Faces.

The 1960s also saw a growing number of pop bands. In addition to the aforementioned bands from the UK and US, other well-remembered bands were making their presence known, including The Mamas And The Papas, The Lovin' Spoonful and The Monkees. Italy had some memorable bands, including Equipe 84, a group from Modena, formed in 1964, specialising in the in vogue brand of beat music that was riding the airwaves that year. I Ribelli had been formed in 1959, but the 1960s saw them take off with a slew of pop songs that included notable cover versions of other artists such as Yummy Yummy Yummy (Ohio Express), Keep On Dancin' (Brian Poole And The Tremeloes) and Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da (The Beatles). Bologna band Pooh also invaded the charts from 1966 with pop concoctions such as Vieni Fuori, Bikini Beat and In Silenzio.

Golden age? With an even greater choice of musical styles and influences, the 1960s is still remembered fondly by music aficionados today. Italy was a hotbed of musical talent that broadened its appeal all over the world. It was the decade that produced many enduring Italian acts, who are still being listened to today, both by those who grew up in the 1960s, and their children and grandchildren.